Thoughts on a First Profession: the text (more or less) of a sermon preached in the Chapel of the Convent of St Mary on the occasion of the First Profession of Sister Hannah, CSM.
Advent 3, Year B: Old Testament Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Gospel John 1:6-8, 19-28
I spent a very interesting hour last Tuesday talking with Rebecca Wright about this morning’s Old Testament reading—the reading from Isaiah. She thinks that what the prophet may be talking about when he speaks of “the Year of the Lord’s favour” is what is elsewhere called a “Year of Jubilee”.
What’s a Year of Jubilee?
The idea, according to Leviticus 25, was that every fiftieth year in the land of Israel all land would be returned to its original owners, all slaves and prisoners would be freed, all debts would be forgiven and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest. There were, of course, many complications involved in such a project. And some, I gather, doubt whether it was ever really more than an aspiration. But whether it was ever actually attempted or not, it was surely rather a wonderful vision—a vision of a society in which however big a mess you got yourself into, there was always a prospect of forgiveness—forgiveness of debts, forgiveness of the loss of land; a society where by definition there could never be a landless class—a class, in other words, that had fallen through the cracks, that had no stake in or possibility of sharing in whatever prosperity the nation had as a whole. It was a vision of a society that functioned, or at least attempted to function, in accord with the boundless mercy and justice of God.
Our prophet in this morning’s reading sees the return to Israel of those who had been forced into exile and captivity at the Fall of Jerusalem in 597 as such a moment of grace, a time of Jubilee, when what had been lost through the nation’s folly, sin or mere tragedy, would be restored. So he says:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
According to St Luke, centuries later Our Lord himself was called on to read these very words for the haftorah—that is, the reading from the Prophets—in a service in the synagogue at Nazareth. And he saw in them a vision that also described his own ministry. “Today,” he said when he had finished reading, “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Here, he told them, in his presence among them, was the true jubilee, the time of God’s forgiveness, the true year of Grace.
All of which brings us to our gospel passage, and the words and deeds of the John the Baptist. As we heard, various people who have been sent by the authorities in Jerusalem want to know what he is up to. After dismissing various suggestions he finally says, “I am a voice”—that is how we might literally translate the Greek—“a voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the LORD!” He too, as he goes on to point out, is alluding to the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, although to a different part from the passage we just heard for our first reading. He is alluding to Isaiah 40, verse 3, where Isaiah speaks of, “a voice calling (קוֹל קוֹרֵא)”. But this passage also, like the one we just heard, speaks of the end of Israel’s captivity, and has wonderful words of hope:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak comfortably to Jerusalem,
and cry to her that her warfare is accomplished,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.
The prophet’s word of summons, “Comfort, comfort (נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ)”—he says it twice, for the matter is urgent!—implies not merely “comfort” in our modern sense of that word, but also challenge, a call to action. So it leads on to “make straight (יַשְּׁרוּ)”! Don’t sit around moping and moaning saying, “We have sinned, our lives are ruined, all is lost”, for the LORD has put away your sin and you have things to do! Rouse yourself! Start living as people who have received forgiveness, a fresh start, and who hope for something even more glorious to come—an eternal destiny as daughters and sons of the living God!
And that, of course, is what this season of Advent is all about. It is the season that looks back to what has been achieved already in the first coming of Jesus Christ, and also forward to the glorious “not yet” promised us in Christ’s second and final coming. So I agree heartily with what Fr. Rob said to us on Advent 1. Advent is not merely a passage to be got through between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a path by way of too much Christmas shopping from one turkey dinner to the next (though to be sure, as an English traditionalist I eat goose at Christmas). No. Advent is actually the season that speaks most directly and plainly to where we really are now. “You were saved in hope,” is the way St Paul puts it (Rom. 8:24), and much of the rest of his correspondence says in effect, “so act like it!” Act as if you really were expecting “a new heavens and a new earth,” as 2 Peter puts it, “the abode of justice” (3:13).
And so we come to this particular morning in this particular place, where a courageous young woman does act in this way. She places her hope in God and commits herself to live in personal poverty—poverty of spirit and simplicity of life; to celibacy; and to a life of obedience, praying that her will may be in harmony with God’s will. All this she attempts for the sake of God’s kingdom and in fellowship with her sisters, other brave women who long ago made this same commitment, as well as in fellowship with still others who have gone before them through the centuries—Hilda of Whitby, Teresa of Ávila, Constance and her Companions, and thousands more.
My friends, what better witness could we have than this of what it means to be what we are all called to be—Advent people, people who look for the coming grace of God?
I’m a Londoner as you know (to be precise, a cockney and proud of it), and I remember once a little cockney Franciscan being asked what was the point of what we call “the religious life”. What did he, as a Franciscan monk, actually do? Since his was a life of service, he could have named many things that he did, but what he actually chose was this.
“Look,” he said, “you know everyone’s supposed to say their prayers, don’t you?”
“Well they don’t always do it, do they?”
“Er—no. I suppose not.”
“Well then, we says ’em for ’em!”
Sister Hannah and her sisters will certainly receive personal gifts of spiritual enrichment through their commitment to the religious life, as do we all for our attempts at faith, love and obedience. But that’s just a side effect. The Sisters and their fellow religious throughout the world don’t actually do what they do for their own enrichment at all. They do what they do for God’s kingdom and for us, for the sake of the world, which God loved so much that he gave His Only Begotten Son to die for it.
So let us, people of the Advent in this third Sunday of Advent, rejoice in our fellowship with these gallant ladies and today especially with Sister Hannah, as they bear their witness to us and for us. Let us pray for grace ourselves to bear that witness with them, in our own way and according to our own calling. And let us now and always joyfully confess the faith that we all share, as the church has taught us.
We believe in One God…
 The Reverend Dr Rebecca Abts Wright, C. K. Benedict Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Hebrew at The School of Theology of The University of the South in Sewanee.
 While the Book of Isaiah as a whole is surely marked by a distinct theological and even to some extent literary unity, it remains that there are also within it distinctions of tone and apparent situation that persuade many (me among them) that it actually contains the work of three prophets over a considerable period of time. Simplifying considerably, one may reasonably speak of an eighth century “First Isaiah”, who lived and prophesied in Jerusalem before the exile and was largely responsible for our Isaiah 1-39; a “Second Isaiah” (or “Isaiah of Babylon”) who lived in Babylon near the end of the exile and was responsible for Isaiah 40-55; and a “Third Isaiah” who was in Jerusalem at a time when, following Cyrus’ edict of 538 (see Ezra 5.13-15, 6:3-12), the exiles were able to return, and whose prophesies are largely reflected in Isaiah 56-66. In view of the connections between them, it is quite possible that Second Isaiah was Third Isaiah’s master and teacher (see e.g. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, D. M. G. Stalker, transl. [London: SCM 1969 (1966)] 366). According to this view our first reading this morning is from Third Isaiah, but the Baptist in our gospel passage is alluding to Second Isaiah. All that granted, of course neither John the Baptist nor the Evangelist knew any of it, and I doubt they would have cared if they had. The important point for their purpose, and as it happens for mine too, was that they all were talking about God’s forgiveness, God’s grace, God’s Jubilee, which they believed themselves called on to proclaim.
 This was original sense of English “comfort” (from Latin confortare: con intensive + fortis) which carried meanings such as, “to strengthen; to encourage; to support; to invigorate” as late as 1674 (see OED “Comfort v.”). So in 1611 when King James’ translators chose it, it was an excellent translation of the Hebrew נַחֲמוּ. Thus, one may note, the “comfortable words” in the Eucharistic Rite of various versions of The Book of Common Prayer (beginning with 1549) are clearly intended to invigorate God’s people, not merely to give them a consoling pat on the head!